In a speech delivered at the end of April, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said ‘…COVID-19 also offers us an opportunity to accelerate the implementation of some long agreed-upon structural changes to enable reconstruction, development and growth. These opportunities call for more sacrifices and – if needs be – what Amilcar Cabral called ‘class suicide’ wherein we must rally behind the common cause’.
Over the past three years, many in diplomatic and business circles have taken any remarks about reform to imply support for the structural reforms necessary to improve South Africa’s investment competitiveness.
They have been wrong and will be quite wrong again if they read similar intent into Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s remarks. Amilcar Cabral was a socialist revolutionary whose theory of ‘class suicide’ held that in post-colonial societies a new bourgeoisie would emerge that would copy the habits and values, and achieve the living standards, of the previous colonial administrators. True revolution could only occur, however, if this new bourgeoisie developed the consciousness to sacrifice their own comfort and prosperity by rejecting such comforts and embracing the pain of socialist revolution. The ‘long agreed structural changes’ Dr Dlamini-Zuma speaks of are expropriation, nationalisation, and state direction of the economy – in order to bring about precisely such a revolution.
Where this leaves her vis-à-vis President Ramaphosa remains unclear. A few days after her speech, he made comments in which he endorsed the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) rallying cry that was the policy centrepiece of the Zuma faction of the ANC in its latter days. RET has never been set to paper in any compelling detail but is taken as code for expropriation, nationalisation, and state direction of the economy.
Grand ‘social compact’
To date, many observers have been quick to discount such comments when coming from Mr Ramaphosa on the grounds that he is simply trying to placate the communists and state-capture remnants in his party via a grand ‘social compact’.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, we faced a number of enquiries along these lines. These weren’t queries as much as statements, often expressed with confidence, along the lines that Mr Ramaphosa looked very strong and in command which, together with the economic reversals that would flow from the pandemic, made structural reform a sure thing – and we were asked if we concurred.
We said that we did not and repeated what we have said over much of the past three years – that we are not sure Mr Ramaphosa is a reformer, but that this is somewhat academic, as what reformers there are in the government do not hold the balance of power. Rather, we said, the risk existed that the ideologues and securocrats in the Cabinet would conspire to use, first, the fear of the virus, then the economic desperation delivered by the lockdown, to set a series of net-negative policy precedents in both the economic and civil rights spheres.
Subsequently, price controls have been enforced on some goods; ‘unfettered’ e-commerce has been banned (according to the Cabinet, so as not to be unfair to those businesses that cannot trade online – the same Cabinet that only weeks ago was professing its enthusiasm and preparedness for the 4IR); the government has regulated when goods down to the level of underpants may be purchased; the deputy finance minister has proposed the printing of money; the tourism minister has insisted that only some races will qualify for state support; the provision of food aid by non-state actors has been curbed; spreading ‘fake news’ is a criminal offence; people who test positive for the virus have been threatened with incarceration; a curfew enforced by the army is in place; army officers have said they won’t answer to parliament; the defence minister has said that the army will only ‘kick, shoot, and assault’ citizens when absolutely necessary; policemen and soldiers have beaten civilians in broad daylight (including with whips); children have been wrested from their parents’ arms for petty lockdown infractions; and a colleague reports that more than 50 people have been killed or have died in the custody of, or as a result of the actions of the army and the police.
Opaque in its reasoning
None of the above is a lead indicator of a government on the verge of structural reform. The opposite is the realistic lead to draw – one to which the isolation of South Africa’s quasi-reformist finance minister Tito Mboweni would appear to attest. The government remains opaque in its reasoning, arguing that all its recent deliberations, which would include those on undergarments, are ‘classified’.
In a meeting this morning, I asked my colleagues to reflect on the madness of it all by watching a few video clips of Mr Mandela’s policy speeches in the early era of South Africa’s democracy. To think, I put it to a senior colleague, that a day would dawn when the precedent then established would be so defiled that the Cabinet, at a time of great global crisis, should hold a position on the regulation of underpants.
It is all so mad that even those sceptical of our early Covid-19 policy reform view are coming around to that view, or at least beginning to mutter that Mr Ramaphosa is taking this social compacting so far as to reach the point of almost appearing to do exactly what his adversaries would do.
As for the argument that all of this was done with great reluctance solely for the public health benefit, and that this benefit has been very great, our calculations of the reproductive value of the virus suggest the lockdown may not have succeeded – although the testing data is too patchy and erratic for the calculation to deliver a clear insight.
As the intrusions into economic and political freedom expanded in the early stages of South Africa’s pandemic, a sort of Stockholm syndrome set in where it seemed almost forgotten that South Africa was meant to be a bastion of liberty in the world. By this standard very little of what was occurring would be acceptable at all. And this occurred, not through a coup against the elected government, or a revocation of the Constitution, but rather in the name of that government via a piece of legislation called the Disaster Management Act.
Constitutional questions about the authority of the state to act in the manner it has have not been met with careful and considered views, but rejected with contempt by government spokespeople. Concerns around the economic fallout of the lockdown have been dismissed, with one Cabinet minister calling them a ‘thumb-suck’.
Even following the announcement last night by Mr Ramaphosa that the lockdown will be further eased to level 3 at the end of May, there is little detail on what that might mean. We think this is because the government does not know what it will mean, and that those in the government understand the ideological and factional battles around which the practical application of a move to level 3 will hinge. The risk is that, as was the case with the move from level 5 to level 4, the whole exercise may end up turning on the politics and the optics more than a sincere effort to place the economy and democracy itself on a sounder footing.
In time, when the repercussions become more obvious, expect that more people will begin to ask how the events of the past several weeks were allowed to occur at all. Part of the answer is that these events reflect the drift of ruling party ideology in South Africa, which has been concealed through a combination of poor analysis and kowtowing to political correctness.
Scared to question
But much of the answer, in our experience, is fear – albeit fear that has its origins in that same ideology and political correctness. Many people are scared to question what is being done because they are physically afraid of the police and the army. Others are afraid of the abuse and stigma of charges of racism, and – madly –‘pro-capitalism’ that will be thrown at them if they question the economic lockdown.
In the upside-down world of Covid-19, pleading to allow people to work and run their businesses in order to stave off mass national impoverishment and hunger is seen as right-wing advocacy. Those who have continued their pleading have been told to be silent in the face of ‘science’, as if the word has the power to overrule civil liberties and common sense.
Many businesses and even senior business leaders are afraid of the sanctions and persecution that may follow if they question what is being done. In the legal profession, people who intended to ask questions have been leaned upon and urged not to. In the media, two news anchors, and not of the state broadcaster, were leaned upon to read apologies after questioning the authority of President Ramaphosa.
Covid-19 is a dangerous virus for many reasons, the greatest of which, in South Africa’s case, may be the extent to which it has been harnessed to undermine economic and political freedom at the end of a long phase of ideological and policy regression, via precedents the advocates of which do not intend ever to revoke. It is important therefore to support those who have stood up to the state to ask tough questions about the economic lockdown. Their efforts played a direct role in creating the pressure that led to last night’s briefing and Mr Ramaphosa’s apology to the country. That pressure must now persist to ensure that the bulk of harmful economic and political regulations are in fact removed in order to mitigate what further harm these may cause, while keeping the army and the police, and their political principals, on notice that they are being watched and their actions recorded for future civil and criminal cases to be brought.
Frans Cronje has recently published his third book, The Rise or Fall of South Africa, which you can find for Kindle on Amazon – because the printing of books remains verboten. Despite the dark portents of the present, he remains invested in the conclusion of the book that the basic trappings of democracy will survive to bring an end to the madness and that South Africa may become very successful into the 2030s.